Should We Reward “Bad People” Who Unexpectedly Do Good Things?
Updated: Apr 1
(1100 words, 3 minutes to read)
Big news this week: in Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, Mitt Romney voted to remove him from office. This is big news precisely because we live in such a tribal world, where everyone’s well-justified expectation is for every Democrat to vote to remove, and every Republican to vote not to. Romney is a Republican! He’s supposed to vote the same as Mitch McConnell!! (“One groom? Two grooms!??”)
The reaction to this news on Twitter has been divided too, of course: on the Right I mostly see people mad at him for defecting to the other team, but the reaction from the Left is more interesting. On the one hand, I see those thanking Romney for voting his conscience, calling him brave or courageous, or saying that he’s making history and changing the face of the Republican party for the better. On the other, I see people saying things like: “What, do you want a trophy for doing a basic, decent thing for once in your life?”
I’m not arguing that this is wrong, only that it is not a good political move; whether Romney is a Good Moral Person is a topic I’d like to ignore for now. This post is about strategy, and strategically, I don’t see how rejecting Romney’s small olive branch can work out well. People respond to incentives, and if you punish people whether they act with you or against you, you lose any ability you might have had to press any of the invisible levers of action in the future.
Let’s give the view its due using an analogy. Suppose your three year-old child gets seriously hurt and you take them to the doctor. If someone started praising you for your bravery, or your outstanding parenting skills, we’d be rightly skeptical of that; you did what any reasonable person would have done. Of course you took them to the doctor. You’d be a monster if you refused to do that. Similarly, of course every Democrat voted to remove Trump; they have their differences, but they’re not monsters! On this view, voting against Trump is so obvious that someone doing so doesn’t constitute a moral act, but merely a necessary one, like taking your child to the doctor. It’s morally neutral do vote against Trump, and morally horrific not to. At best you break even, and Romney breaks even here.
What’s wrong with giving him credit? The worry might be that if we do so we are not holding him responsible for all the other things he is getting very wrong.
Yes yes, I’m screenshotting Twitter. I’m one of those.
If he gets positive morality points here, he might try to use them to “cancel out” other problematic behaviors he continues to engage in, like suppressing abortion rights.
The situation brings to mind one of my favorite posts by Scott Alexander, which argues against telling people that they are impossibly problematic no matter what they do. Scott quotes another blog making the opposite point:
You can be good—certainly you get major points for charity and activism and fighting the good fight—but not good enough. No matter what you do, you’re still participating in plenty of corrupt systems that enforce oppression. Short of bringing about a total revolution of everything, your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.
But if you tell a person, “Hey pay this infinite debt but no matter how much you pay you’re still garbage,” you know, they might not want to even try. Instead of convincing them to take steps in the right direction, you tell them the road goes on forever and they’ll die before they get anywhere, and so they never move at all.
“Isn’t this different though?” someone might chime in. “We’re not asking Romney (or any other Republican) to do anything really hard, but only to support a few really critical policies that any reasonable person should support. If they’d just sign up for uncontroversial policies like [a move towards universal health care, common-sense gun control, climate change, abortion rights, or any other of a slew of topics that the Democratic candidates agree on], then they get to be on the good side of history.”
The best case argument here works only if the goalposts don’t move towards [single-payer health care, reparations, free college tuition, cancelling student debt, or something else that isn’t agreed upon even within the party], which is nontrivial. And even if the goalposts don’t move, it turns out that getting a Republican to agree to any one of these “uncontroversial” policies is super hard. Ask a Republican to agree to all of them and your probability of success will approach zero. With very significant nudging and encouragement, you might possibly maybe if you’re lucky convince someone to not totally oppose one of your favorite “uncontroversial” policies. Romney jumped the fence in some way by voting against Trump on this one thing. This was clearly extremely hard to do, personally and professionally. (Watch the video, come on, he’s literally crying about it.) Do you really want to punish him?
Suppose you want to see more Republicans standing up to Trump in the future, either during this election cycle or later on if Trump gets re-elected. (If he gets re-elected can he get re-impeached?) One of their reasons for doing this might be that they want to be seen as moral people who stood up and did something hard because they believe it was right. But they see Romney jump the fence, only to get attacked by the Right and made fun of by the Left, and as a result they might decide not to stick their necks out.
And suppose you are trying to convince some unenthusiastic Trump voters from 2016 that they can defect to the other side in 2020. They might actually not like Trump very much, but they need to be able to explain to their friends why they made the choices they did (voting may be mostly signaling, after all). If their expectation is that their friends on the Right will hate them, and their friends on the Left at best remain neutral, they might decide it’s not worth it.
Personally, I’d very much like to see more politicians who are willing to vote across party lines and show that they have opinions that can’t be perfectly inferred from by who sits nearest to them in Congress. And more broadly, the Life Lesson I take away from all of this is that we should reward people (even in small ways) when they do good things, however unexpected the act was.
So good on you, Romney.